‘War Horse’: The Reviews Are In!

Steven Spielberg's holiday offering is a 'litmus test' for moviegoers' feelings about the director, one critic says.

The Christmas holiday offers a staggering array of fresh cinematic choices. The last two weeks have given us films about chipmunks and tigers, 19th-century detectives and 21st-century spies, motion-captured adventurers and motorcycle-riding hackers . Shoot, there are not one but two Steven Spielberg flicks to choose from when all of your presents have been opened and that post-holiday-meal coma has set in.

The most recent is “War Horse,” which nabbed two Golden Globe nominations and is likely to garner a slew of Oscar nods, including Best Picture and Best Director (even if the reviews are mixed). The movie, which hit theaters on Sunday (December 25), isn’t polarizing so much as it is, in critic Bill Goodykoontz’s lovely phrasing, a “litmus test” for moviegoers’ feelings about Spielberg’s films in general. Some reviewers have lauded the beautiful cinematography and stellar cast, while others have taken issue with the film’s overly sentimental tone.

Read on for a deep dive into “War Horse” reviews.

The Story
“The film deals with the relationship between Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey. It’s a sprawling story that uses the background of World War I as a framework, but it’s really a very direct journey. Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) buys a horse, Albert falls in love with it, WWI begins, the horse is sold to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), and Albert decides to enlist so he can find his horse and keep him safe. The film follows Joey from owner to owner, using the horse’s journey as a way of dipping into a number of stories along the way, and eventually reaching a rousing and nakedly tear-jerking finale. It is an episodic film, and how you feel about the movie as a whole will depend largely on whether or not you are moved by the various stops along the way.” — Drew McWeeny, HitFix

The Performances
“The cast is exemplary down the line, with both names and newcomers delivering expansive, emotional and almost entirely sympathetic performances. Neither side in the conflict is ennobled or demonized; like Joey (and a striking black steed who’s his companion for a while), the grunts are just pawns in the hands of unseen manipulators of countless fates. Irvine is the very picture of a sturdy, well-intentioned, ruddy-faced English country lad of a hundred years ago and Mullan and [Emily] Watson look to have come from the earth they tread. Tom Hiddleston cuts a striking figure as an English officer who understands Joey early on, setting an example for the many others who briefly come and go through the horse’s life as the war grinds on.” — Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

The Action
“Spielberg’s battle scenes are a marvel of sight and sound — the latter literally shakes the theatres from the pop of rifles and the thunder of cannons. Spielberg tugs at the heart strings, but he’s also not afraid to smack you upside the head with combat that realistically shows the madness of war. He interrupts the action too often, perhaps fearing a punitive censor rating. There are long stretches of ‘War Horse’ where Joey passes from hand to hand like the precious golden circle of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ as this barnyard Balzac further demonstrates its wisdom and stoicism while dispensing silent life lessons.” — Peter Howell, Toronto Star

The Dissenters
“[It's] overlong, painfully earnest and sometimes even hokey. Clearly, Spielberg intended ‘War Horse’ as a throwback, an homage to good, old-fashioned, heartrending storytelling, full of recognizable types and uplifting themes. The skies are so impossibly colorful in such a retro way, they look like hand-painted backdrops on a soundstage. And the dialogue is so frequently on-the-nose and repetitive, it might just make you cringe.” — Christy Lemire, The Associated Press

The Final Word
” ‘War Horse’ is a sort of litmus test for how you feel about Steven Spielberg’s films. It’s a beautiful movie, stunning to look at, with echoes of film history all throughout, reaching back to ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘The Searchers,’ Spielberg’s own ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and more. It’s also unapologetically sentimental. Spielberg all but begs you to cry, and unless you’re a heartless cad, you probably will.” — Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic

Check out everything we’ve got on “War Horse.”

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